Friday, February 24, 2017

Bedřich Smetana: My Life and Welcome To It...

Smetana in 1878
Who: The Dover Quartet
What: Caroline Shaw's "Plan & Elevation (The Grounds of Dumbarton Oaks)", Bedřich Smetana's String Quartet No. 1 in E Minor ("From My Life"), and Dmitri Shostakovich's String Quartet No. 2 in A Major
When: Sunday afternoon, February 26th, at 3:00, with a pre-concert talk by Dr. Truman Bullard at 2:15
Where: Temple Ohev Sholom, on N. Front Street in uptown Harrisburg between Seneca & Emerald Streets.
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The Dover Quartet, the most recent winners of Chamber Music America's Cleveland Quartet Award, recorded the first movement of Bedřich Smetana's 1st String Quartet, the one he called “From My Life.”

They'll be playing the whole quartet on Sunday's program at Temple Ohev Sholom. You can read more about the other works on the program in earlier posts: Caroline Shaw's Plan and Elevation (The Grounds of Dumbarton Oaks) here; and Dmitri Shostakovich's 2nd String Quartet in A Major, here.

If you've been following the earlier posts, remember what I said about composers responding to reality through their art? Well, speaking of reality, it does get more "Reality Quartet" than Bedřich Smetana's "From My Life."

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When Beethoven was going deaf – or, more accurately, showing the first serious signs of his impending deafness – he continued to compose his 2nd Symphony. In the midst of working on the finale, he wrote the devastating Heiligenstadt Testament which, to us, reads like a suicide note, and yet there is nothing in the music he composed that would indicate what was happening in his personal life. But then, while Beethoven's struggle with Fate in his 5th Symphony is often described as “the artist overcoming his deafness” (“I will seize Fate by the throat,” he had written to a friend the year before the Testament), that struggle transcends the very nature of the music, becoming universal rather than personal.

When Bedřich Smetana was going deaf, he wrote a string quartet about it. Well, not entirely about it, but the quartet he composed at that time focused on various parts of his life, an autobiographical summing-up, perhaps, in which his impending deafness makes a dramatic appearance in the last chapter.

He had lost hearing in his right ear by September of 1874, following a throat infection (complete with a rash) that led to a blockage in the ears. Forced to take time off from his duties as artistic director of the opera theater in Prague where he'd been having run-ins with the administration – the official press release explaining his absence stated he had “become ill as a result of nervous strain caused by certain people recently” (art and politics, nothing new, there) – and by October, had lost all hearing in his left ear as well. The next January, he wrote in his journal, “If my disease is incurable, then I should prefer to be liberated from this life.”

It wasn't until the next year, however, that he composed his first string quartet which he himself subtitled “From My Life.” Completed in late-December, 1876, the quartet reflects different periods of his life beginning with a musical depiction of his romantic ideals of a nationalist style for his native Bohemia (listen to the clip by the Dover Quartet at the head of this post), the “love of art in my youth,” he wrote, “my romantic mood and the unspoken longing for something which I could not name or imagine clearly.” The first theme, a dramatic viola solo beginning with downward leaps, stood for “Fate's summons to take part in life's combat” and that the opening falling fifth which recurs at the end of the quartet was “a warning as it were of my future misery.”

This is followed by a lively dance (a polka), full of memories of a joyful youth, played here by the Juilliard Quartet:

The Prague Chamber Music Society rejected the work as unplayable, too advanced in style and too challenging to play, mostly because the key signature of the Polka's middle section was in five flats with “much modulation” and too many double stops creating intonation issues for the performers.

The third movement is one of “great emotional depth, a paean to love, which transcends the adversities of fate and finds harmony in life.” This clip is with the Alban Berg Quartet:

In the last movement, “the composer describes the journey that led to an understanding of the true essence of national art, only to be interrupted by the catastrophe of his incipient deafness. The end is almost resigned, with only a small ray of hope for a better future.”

In this live performance, the Doležal Quartet plays the finale as part of a ceremony broadcast live on Czech TV (please ignore the 'news crawl' across the bottom of the screen, but speaking of reality's intrusion...):

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It's in the last movement where, in the midst of a lively celebration, a high note in the violin played as a harmonic (giving it an entirely different, almost other-worldly sonority) represents the sound he heard inside his head, the onset of his deafness.

And yet, in reality, that high note occurs only once and at the very end of the last movement (in the Doležal performance, the high E is almost lost) and its immediate impact is to cut off the flow of the finale (which seemed about to end, anyway), before recalling the opening motive and then reminiscing over the second theme of the first movement and an idea from the opening of the last, before ending on a long sustained if undulating E Major chord (thanks to the viola's underpinning) – resigned but, yes, hopeful. And certainly dramatic. (Curiously, the idea of leaving it as an E Minor chord at the end might have an entirely different emotional response.)

In July of 1874, he noticed his ears were blocked and he felt giddy. His doctor advised him to avoid any musical activity (he was, at the time, composing the first of the Ma Vlast tone-poems). “I am to stay at home for almost a week,” he wrote in his diary. “I cannot go out and have my ears wrapped in cotton wool since I must have complete quiet. I fear the worst—that I will become permanently deaf.” He described it as “a pounding and intense hissing in the head, day and night, without ceasing, as if I were standing underneath a huge waterfall.”

Asking to be temporarily relieved of his duties at the theater, Smetana went to see his doctor again who tried electric shocks and then gave him “an ether douche.” “For the first time for ages,” he wrote, “I can again hear the entire range of octaves in tune. Previously, they were all jumbled up. I can still hear nothing with my right ear.” Twelve days later he lost what hearing he had briefly regained: he was now totally deaf. Friends sent him money to pay for trips to Germany to see specialists but there was no further improvement, temporary or otherwise.

Business issues regarding his salary from the theater's association led to his giving up his apartment in Prague to move in with his married daughter in a town north of Prague. He complained of a “piercing whistling sound” that “haunted” him every evening (in the quartet, it's represented by a high E; in reality, it was more like an A-flat major chord). He could not work for more than an hour at a time. Yet during this time, he was also composing perhaps his most famous, certainly his most performed piece, the tone-poem “The Moldau.” The following year he completed a new comic opera, The Secret.
The Vltava (Moldau) River flows through Prague

About a year after completing the string quartet, he wrote to a friend, “I should like... to be able to work without having to worry, but unfortunately those gentlemen of the [theater] association – and fate – will not allow that. When I continually see only poverty and misery ahead of me all enthusiasm for my work goes, or at least my cheerful mood vanishes. ...When I plunge into musical ecstasy [when composing] then for a while I forget everything that persecutes me so cruelly in my old age.”

He was in his early 50s.

For those of us who think deafness means a loss of hearing and a descent into silence (which for many people, it may be), Smetana's descriptions sound frightening. In recent times (decades, really), more attention has been paid to a condition called tinnitus, an official name now for what used to be called simply "ringing in the ears." The impression Smetana's deafness was (or at least began as) a case of tinnitus, given its brief appearance at the end of his quartet, may seem natural: to have written music describing the actual sounds, especially the pounding and hissing sounds he experienced day and night, the idea of standing under a waterfall, may have been more than a musician, at least in the 19th Century, might have been able to recreate (or an audience to put up with).

American composer Brent Michael Davids realized he had developed tinnitus and composed his own quartet in which the pitch he heard - in his case, a high A - is played constantly by some member of the quartet throughout the entire piece. As James Oestreich describes it in his 2005 New York Times review, "As that sustained pitch slowly shifts from one instrument to another, the remaining players work around it, producing skittish tremolos, slides and scrapes that hint at other aural aberrations as well. Short-breathed, repetitive melodies break through occasionally and come to dominate in what might be called an apotheosis. But the real apotheosis follows, with the tinnitus tone surrounded by suggestions of chirping crickets." The sound of crickets can sometimes mask the intrusive sound, as Davids explains, allowing him to "tune it out for periods of time." "And the conclusion of this unsettling piece," Oestreich writes, "vividly illustrates the relief they can provide."

(When the Miró Quartet performed it here with Market Square Concerts that season, it was indeed an uncomfortable experience, allowing us to hear for fifteen minutes or so what the world sounds like to someone with tinnitus. When I asked a friend of mine who has tinnitus if that's what it's like, that constant sound, he admitted he could not hear that specific recurring pitch: it was masked by his own.)

Perhaps the idea of writing such an autobiographical quartet was more cathartic, something to take the composer's mind off reality (again with the reality!) rather than being merely self-pitying. After all, the part of the quartet that specifically concerns his deafness is a very small part of it, yet almost the only thing about it anyone seems to mention!

Smetana's quartet is certainly the first of its kind, as far as autobiographical chamber music is concerned: it's not just the idea of its telling a story but turning a personal experience into music. Did the idea come from Berlioz' Symphonie fantastique? (He had met Berlioz when he was a student and would conduct his Romeo et Juliette in 1864.) At any rate, Leoš Janáček would later write two such string quartets, one inspired by Tolstoy's tale of adultery, “The Kreutzer Sonata,” and then “Intimate Pages,” inspired by love letters written to his mistress.

Smetana & Bettina, 1860
Speaking of personal relationships, another issue plagued Smetana at the time of his deafness. He had married his second wife, Bettina Ferdinandiová, 16 years his junior, in 1860. They had two daughters, both of whom survived their father. But the relationship with Bettina became increasingly unpleasant. "I cannot live under the same roof with a person who hates and persecutes me," he'd wrote to her in a letter. They considered divorce but chose instead to remain, however unhappily, together.

To conclude this brief summary of a life, I should mention that, despite his continuing to compose and the belated success he was finding with the premieres of Ma Vlast, Smetana began having bouts of forgetfulness, being unable to remember what he had just written down, barely writing four measures of music a day (difficult when you're composing an opera). Forbidden any musical activity, he was not even allowed to read for more than fifteen minutes.

Still, five months later, he succeeded in finishing a second string quartet, worked on a new orchestral suite, started sketching another opera (this one inspired by the very un-Czech story of Shakespeare's Twelfth Night) before he suffered an attack we would describe as dementia, affecting his mental equilibrium. He began having hallucinations and had to be watched in case he injured himself. Unable to recognize his family, he tried to escape from the house and eventually had to be placed in what was then known as Prague's Kateřinky Lunatic Asylum where he died less than three weeks later.

His family (and most others) had long assumed his deafness, difficult to evaluate with the technology of the day, was the result of syphilis, something no one in polite society discussed. But modern research tends to point to other possible causes, none of which can be definitively proven.The official cause of death, however, was listed as senile dementia.

He had recently turned 60.

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It occurred to me, overhearing a concert-goer at the symphony a couple weeks ago, surprised to find Sibelius was “that recent” (presumably meaning since he died in 1957, not that the violin concerto was written in 1905), that we often tend to overlook specifically when the composers of the music we're listening to lived. I know my dad once told me he had no idea when Bach or Tchaikovsky lived – “they could be contemporaries” for all he knew – but it didn't keep him from enjoying their music. Preparing this post, I realized I'm not all that sure where to fit Smetana into this musical time-line. He's not, I admit, a composer high on my list though I enjoy the music most of us in this country are aware of. We speak of Dvořák and Smetana as one of those “pairs” like Bach and Handel, Mozart and Haydn, or Wagner and Liszt. Usually, that leads to the misconception they were friends and colleagues, not just contemporaries, which is not the case.

Smetana is referred to as the “Father of Czech Music” but Dvořák, at least in this country, is considered the “Greatest Czech Composer” or, more accurately, the “Most Popular Czech Composer” even if few concert-goers could name many more.

First of all, let me point out that Dvořák was born in 1841. When Smetana was born – listed as Friedrich rather than Bedřich in the register since German was the official language – it was 1824 and Beethoven had not yet completed his 9th Symphony. When Smetana gave his first public performance as a budding pianist at the age of 6, Berlioz was working on his Symphonie fantastique. Mendelssohn was 21 and Brahms wouldn't be born for another three years.

As a fervent patriot in his mid-20s, Smetana participated briefly in the “uprisings” in the spring of 1848, only one part of a continent-wide series of uprisings and revolutions that led to the national awareness of many ethnic minorities then under German or Austrian control. There were other issues as well – in Paris, in Dresden (where Wagner and Schumann were both affected by it) – but in Prague it was primarily a revolt against the German-speaking oppressors. Like most of these revolts, this one too ended in failure. (It's interesting to note the new, young Emperor of Austria who held sway against the 1848 uprisings was the same one still in power at the start of World War I in 1914!)

Katerina, Smetana's 1st wife
Smetana had married Katerina Kolářová in 1849 and they had four daughters, three of whom died in infancy. One of them showed early talent as a musician but died of scarlet fever in 1855, prompting him to write an elegiac Piano Trio in G Minor in her memory.

Unable to establish a career in Prague (perhaps because of his recent political role), Smetana and his family moved to Göteborg in Sweden where he heard they were looking for music teachers. With the exception of a few visits home – during one of these, his wife, already in frail health, died en route – he remained in Sweden until the early-1860s when “a more liberal climate” in Bohemia prompted him to return to Prague. The Provisional Theater (so called because it was intended to be a temporary home for Czech music until a National Theater could be built) opened in 1862. The building eventually became part of the new theater when it finally opened in 1881.

During the early-1860s, his first years back at home, Smetana began work on two operas on Czech stories: a historical “grand” opera, The Brandenburgers in Bohemia, and a comedy about a romantic tangle involving a marriage broker, a village girl, and the boy she'd rather marry, The Bartered Bride.

One of the musicians in the theater's orchestra in 1862 was a violist named Antonin Dvořák.

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Dvořák started his musical life as a fan of Wagner, even played viola in the orchestra when Wagner came to Prague to conduct an all-Wagner program of opera excerpts. Not surprisingly, some of Dvořák's early works (those rarely played early symphonies and operas, for instance) have a Wagnerian sound about them, not the folk-inspired voice we associate with the mature composer. He had been composing since 1861 (when he was 20) – this is about the same time Smetana was trying to establish himself in Prague – but his first public appearance as a composer didn't occur until ten years later.

Then, in the mid-1870s, he started entering the competitions for the Austrian State Prize (keep in mind that Bohemia, as the Czech Republic was known then, had been a province of the Austrian or Austro-Hungarian Empire from the 16th Century until 1918) and, in addition to winning some grants and prizes, in 1877 garnered the attention of Johannes Brahms who agreed to ask his own publisher to publish some of Dvořák's music.

Now, so far, there's not much mention of Bedřich Smetana in Dvořák's story. True, in 1866, Smetana became the director of Prague's Provisional Theater where Dvořák was one of the players, the same year The Bartered Bride was not a success and they may have known each other but there was never anything like a friendship between them and Smetana never seemed to have any role as a teacher or mentor to the younger composer. They certainly would never have "hung out" together, discussing how to create a national music style! Or did they?

Antonin Dvořák in 1868
It was Smetana's job, as artistic director and conductor, to foster new Czech music. But when Dvořák submitted his opera, The King and the Charcoal-Burner, in 1871, the score was returned, declared to be “unperformable.” Given the musical politics of the day, espousing Wagnerian concepts of opera was to many musicians the equivalent of fingernails on a blackboard. And Smetana, who not only admired Wagner, he was a friend of Liszt's, had enough political problems with the theater management not to champion a young and inexperienced Wagnerite like this Dvořák fellow.

As it was, Smetana was forced to resign in 1872 following opposition from prominent subscribers but was reinstated after the management received an ultimate signed by most of the theater's musicians, including Dvořák. Now given more authority, he planned to produce more Czech operas, though he himself had little time for composing.

Then, in 1874, Smetana became ill, lost his hearing, and retired from the theater. Moving to a town outside of Prague where he could live with his one daughter while hoping to recuperate, as I mentioned, he composed his first string quartet in 1876 which he subtitled “From My Life.”

This was the year Wagner's Ring of the Nibelung was given its first full production at Bayreuth, and the year Brahms finally finished his 1st Symphony.

Dvořák's career didn't really get started until 1877 when he received the backing of the great Brahms (and more importantly, his anti-Wagnerian friend, the critic Eduard Hanslick). By this time, Dvořák had passed over from being a Wagnerite to following in the footsteps of Brahms, but it was his use of Bohemian folk music that caught Brahms' attention which resulted in his request for Dvořák to compose a set of dances for piano duet, modeled after Brahms' own “Hungarian Dances” which would be attractive to the amateur audience. And so, with the appearance of his “Slavonic Dances,” Dvořák's career was on its way.

By this time, Smetana was out of the active music scene, though his music, what he had already composed – at this time, much of Ma Vlast and several more operas were in the future – proved enough to influence a whole generation of younger composers.

As for one bit of connectivity between Smetana's and Dvořák's time-lines, there's this tantalizing bit: after Smetana's string quartet was finished in December of 1876, it was given a "private performance" in Prague sometime in 1878 (the public premiere wasn't until March of 1879) in which the violist was Antonin Dvořák.

And Dvořák began writing his Slavonic Dances, the fruits of his new connection with Brahms & Co., sometime in 1878. These do not quote actual Bohemian folk-songs but incorporate the essence of the sound in its use of dance-forms and -rhythms, similar to what Smetana had done.

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As for being the “Father of Czech Music,” or at least the Nationalist School that developed in Bohemia following the 1848 uprising, Smetana did not do it by utilizing existing folk-songs which is what we normally assume. He did not learn to speak Czech until the 1860s when he was already in his late-30s – before then, he spoke only German, the official language of society, education and commerce – and much of the music he composed followed certain guidelines established by Wagner though not necessarily imitating his style (as one writer more knowledgeable of Smetana's operas pointed out, people who complained of his Wagnerism apparently were not familiar with much of Wagner's music). He was a patriot which might seem a problem in a German-dominated society like Prague's, but he was a “radical patriot” as opposed to a “conservative patriot” and that was the problem, Wagner or not.

His first opera, The Brandenburgers in Bohemia, was a historical drama about a 13th Century German occupation, and most of his subsequent operas were about legendary heroes rather than real-life people like the peasants who populated The Bartered Bride. This would seem to be his “masterpiece,” viewed from its world-wide popularity, but it wasn't until 1870 that the fourth and final version of it – which also added those three famous dances – became a hit. Still, when it was staged in St. Petersburg, Russia, the next year, one critic said it was “no better than the work of a gifted fourteen-year-old boy.” (Odd, you might think, considering the famous school of Russian nationalists known as “The Five” or “The Mighty Handful,” not having any sympathy for Czech nationalism, but keep in mind, at that time, their familiar works were several years in the future, including Mussorgsky's Boris Godunov, its first complete performance not until 1874; Tchaikovsky had so far not yet composed even his 2nd Symphony.) The Bartered Bride wasn't heard in Vienna until 1892, eight years after the composer's death, and only then started to gain any gradual international success, the only one of his eight operas to do so.

When we think of “Czech Nationalism” (or any ethnic nationalism in music), we tend to think of those pleasant peasants who dance beside the waters of the Moldau (how ironic the Bohemian river is known internationally by its German name rather than as the Vltava) or frolic through the village square of The Bartered Bride. Dvořák became a “Czech Nationalist” because he used folk songs and dances in his music – and even when he used what he thought were American folk songs in the mid-1890s for his “New World” Symphony, they still sounded like Czech tunes.

(The same argument continues today regarding “American Music.” Can “American Music” only be something like Aaron Copland's folk-song-inspired Billy the Kid or is Elliott Carter an example of American Music because he happens to be a composer who spent most of his 103 years writing in the United States?)

If your argument is popularity, then when you visit the Czech Republic, you should be aware that there Smetana is held in much higher regard than Dvořák and more of his works are heard in the opera and concert repertoire. When Smetana began conducting new Czech works in the 1860s, there really was no “tradition” of Czech music, especially music sung in Czech: these composers may have been Czech-born (like Smetana) but their music was German in style and ethos. Anything in Czech was more on the level of operetta and even then, pretty poor. The most “famous” Czech composer of operas immediately before Smetana was a fellow named František Škroup who died in 1862, few of whose 16 stage works, according to a couple of sources, ran for more than two performances. There were dozens of famous Bohemian musicians in the late-18th and early-19th Centuries, many of them fine composers, but they all gravitated toward Vienna or Paris if they wanted to make a living, especially back in the days of Haydn and Mozart. Prague, musically, was basically a vacuum as far as its national musical identity was concerned. And it was slow to change.

If nothing else, Smetana did change all that, making a case for music in the native language with a national "voice." Without him, even without the direct contact of teacher or mentor, it's quite possible Dvořák might have continued imitating Brahms.

- Dick Strawser

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